EU has universal standards for judging asylum claims. Right-wing governments reject more anyway.

January 15, 2021

Not every EU country plays by the same rules when it comes to asylum seekers. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Far-right parties in the European Union may be flouting the bloc’s standards for processing asylum seekers, according to new research that found nations reducing their claim approvals in a sign that the EU still struggles to enforce unified humanitarian protections.

Although the EU’s member states officially share common standards for judging which asylum claims should be approved and which shouldn’t, an article published on Dec. 8 in European Union Politics that examined data on the asylum recognition rates in 26 EU member countries between 2000 and 2018 found that domestic politics can have a big effect on how these international humanitarian agreements translate into asylum decisions on the ground. 

“From a humanitarian perspective, it’s obviously hugely important that we’re able to process [asylum] claims fairly without political biases influencing the situation,” the study’s author, Meredith Winn of Sciences Po, told The Academic Times. “But I would say my findings indicate that we’re still far from reaching that goal.”

Winn, who studies the relationship between migration and far-right political parties, said she found a surprising lack of research on how right-wing parties actually govern when they end up in legislatures or cabinet positions.

“We are now almost 40 years into what we call the third wave of far-right activity, and we have very, very few empirical studies of … what happens when they get into power in terms of the concrete policy impacts,” she said.

Studying asylum recognition rates offers a useful window into the way changes in a nation’s governing coalition result in policy shifts, Winn explained. That’s in part because changing the way claims are processed doesn’t always need legislative approval, so ruling parties can use it as a mechanism for change with fewer obstacles.

To understand the impact these parties have, Winn developed regression models demonstrating the effects of right-wing cabinet post share and legislative seat share and discovered that as right-wing politicians increase as a share of governments, asylum recognition rates decrease.

Far-right parties likely cut back on asylum approvals because of their particularly “nativist, authoritarian, and populist ideologies.” While a number of left- and right-wing political stances broadly share skepticism toward immigration, Winn argued, the far right’s opposition to all non-native influences makes it uniquely incompatible with granting asylum.

The far-right ideology could therefore explain a key element of Winn’s results — that while right-wing gains in government generally are linked to lower asylum recognition rates, far-right gains cause an even sharper reduction in the rate of claims approved.

“Anti-immigrant policies meant to protect native workers or promote national security can be reconciled to asylum-based migration, which represents an extreme case and overriding humanitarian principles,” she said. “Nativism, however, cannot make exceptions for humanitarian interest in creating immigration policy.”

An increase of one standard deviation in legislative seat share for right-wing parties from its mean is linked with a decrease in recognition rate of “about .669 total points,” Winn found. While the effect may seem statistically “modest,” a drop in approved asylum claims has significant human stakes.

With 1,252,467 asylum claims made in the EU in 2017, Winn pointed out, “A global increase of right-wing parties in legislatures by one standard deviation would … be associated with over 8,379 additional asylum rejections.”

“Given the potential life-and-death consequences of asylum decisions, even such a modest change in recognition rate is worth noting,” she said.

Meanwhile, higher levels of left-wing participation in government didn’t seem to impact asylum recognition rates. That could be because left-wing parties weren’t classified by their specific agendas, she said, and future research could explore whether specific types of left-wing parties, such as pro-worker parties, might also favor tighter asylum controls.

Despite the continued discrepancies, the EU has taken meaningful steps toward harmonizing asylum policy across its 27 member states, Winn said, noting that the bloc in 1990 established the Dublin Convention to lay out rules for asylum adjudication procedures and launch a system for assigning claims to states. On top of subsequent updates to the Convention, the EU has also mandated a range of protections for individuals fleeing violence in their home countries and begun coordinating on a shared database for asylum seekers’ biometric data.

Nonetheless, these agreements leave individual states with “a wide degree of discretion” by their governments and even individual decision makers to judge who’s fleeing legitimate persecution and who isn’t, according to Winn, a dynamic which, while unavoidable to an extent, leaves the process open to political interference and potentially grave humanitarian impacts.

The push to ensure that asylum claims are processed fairly is still relatively young and may become more effective as time goes on, according to Winn, who noted that EU agencies are now flexing their enforcement authority through fines against governments that aren’t meeting their obligations to migrants of all kinds.

That effort is part of larger bid by international institutions like the EU and the United Nations to coordinate “transnational governance” through promoting human rights across borders and ensuring violators face consequences.

Any progress in that direction is better than none at all, Winn said.

“The alternative would be not having these types of [transnational] organizations, which would produce the same if not worse outcomes from the perspective of homogenizing policies and ensuring fairness,” she said. “So even though perhaps it’s not performing where we would like it to be, I think it is better than not having it.”

The article “The far-right and asylum outcomes: Assessing the impact of far-right politics on asylum decisions in Europe,” published online on Dec. 8 in European Union Politics, was authored by researcher Meredith Winn of Sciences Po.

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